Julian of Norwich’s Showings shines with luminous mystical wisdom. If there is one mystic I wish everyone would read, it is Julian. But of course, the question is, “which edition should I read?” Thankfully, Mirabai Starr’s lovely and engaging new translation of this medieval masterpiece makes it more accessible than ever.
Now, let me put in a bit of a disclaimer here. I’m not a purist, but I understand where purists come from and I can anticipate an objection that some would have to this translation. I imagine that there are purists who might take exception to some of the ways in which Starr renders the more theologically freighted of Julian’s language. For example, she changes “those who will be saved” to “all beings,” which might lead some to say that the translator is projecting universalism into the text. But she’s honest about her instances of editorial license, and one could easily argue that she is being true to the overall spirit of Julian when she makes these kinds of changes. Translation is always a messy business (which is why the ultimate purists, like Maggie Ross, insist that the mystics should not be translated to begin with, but that’s an argument for another day). We accept the fact that even the most meticulous translators will project something of themselves into their work, and the reason why a phrase like “lost in translation” makes sense is because, well, that pretty much always happens. But we pay the price of translations’ shortcomings in order to make texts accessible to all those who are unable or unwilling to read the original — so we look for a translation that, despite whatever limitations it might have, still manages to shimmer with the wisdom of the original author. And this is precisely what I find, overall, in this new translation of Julian.
Okay, with that out of the way, what is it that I love about this new edition of Julian? Well, there’s plenty. Even the most stiff of translations still manage to convey something of Julian’s earthiness and friendly voice; but Starr brings those qualities of the text front and center. In many ways I think this edition of Julian is the natural companion to Carmen Acevedo Butcher’s rendition of The Cloud of Unknowing — another contemporary translation which makes the middle English original more accessible than ever. She manages to present Julian’s voice in a way that is lyrical and comfortable, but never breezy or chatty. Julian’s theological wrestling — with the nature of good and evil, the fate of the devil, how Christians should respond to the passion, and how to reconcile the church’s teaching about hell and damnation with the unconditional love of God — all of these issues, which form so much of the meat of Julian’s journey, seem particularly lucid in Starr’s rendering. What emerges is not only Julian’s celebrated optimism (yes, of course that shines through) but also, and perhaps so importantly, the way in which her positive message emerges out of the intensity of her struggle with how to reconcile her theology with her mystical experience.
And this is an exercise that any contemplative — who respects and honors both the tradition of wisdom that we receive from the past, along with the call to authenticity and honesty as we engage in our spiritual practice and direct sense of the encounter with God — will sooner or later have to face. The history of mysticism has plenty of examples of both those who followed their own inner voice and essentially ignored or flouted tradition, as well as those who insisted so much on submission to the tradition that they felt any kind of experience or personal sense of the presence of God should be rejected as illusion. If we discount both of those positions as extremes, we are still left with the question: how do I reconcile my own sense of the presence of God with the teachings and wisdom of those who came before me — especially when there seems to be a tension between how I understand God and how I perceive the tradition? This kind of question shows up in the work of many mystics (John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila being two obvious examples), but Julian’s wrestling with it is poetic, steeped in love, and, I believe, truly accessible to our time, despite the fact that she lived six centuries ago. Back to Mirabai Starr: her version of Julian opens up this inner tension (conflict might not be too strong of a word) at the heart of Julian’s book, making it truly come alive.
Okay, so I guess I’m enough of a purist that I think we should at least acknowledge all of the liberties that Starr took with the text (and if you are going to preach a sermon on Julian, perhaps it would be wise to check in with a more literalistic translation — or better yet, the text in the original middle English). But for meditative or devotional reading or as a supplement to lectio divina, this version of Julian’s Showings is well worth using. It will invite you in to Julian’s world, where you will be treated to a spirituality that is honoring of the earth, the body, the feminine; deeply passionate, thoroughly optimistic, and fully soaked in the vast, unconditional Love of God. And — to echo how I began this post — that world is a realm I wish everyone would get to know, as well as they can.
Disclosure: a complimentary review copy of the book reviewed in this post was supplied to me by the publisher. If you follow the link of a book mentioned in this post and purchase it or other products from Amazon.com, I receive a small commission from Amazon.